Fifty years ago this month, a USAF F-106A Delta Dart (S/N 58-0787) out of Malmstrom AFB, Montana made a wheels-up landing in a farmer’s field despite the fact that there was no pilot onboard. The pilot, Lieutenant Gary Foust, had ejected earlier when he was unable to recover the aircraft from a flat spin. This incident became known in popular culture as “The Cornfield Bomber”.
On Monday, 02 February 1970, a trio of pilots from the 71st Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS) took-off from Malmstrom AFB, Montana for the purpose of practicing air combat maneuvers. A fourth pilot had intended to be part of this group but was forced to abort the mission when his aircraft’s drag parachute strangely deployed on the ramp.
The pilots who took to the air that day were Major Thomas Curtis, Major James Lowe, and Faust. Each man was at the controls of a Convair F-106A Delta Dart; aka “The Ultimate Interceptor”. The three-ship formation departed Malmstrom for an area roughly 90 miles north of the base designated for the flying of air combat maneuvers and engagements.
The practice session began with a two-on-one head-on engagement. Approaching the other two aircraft at Mach 1.90 in full afterburner, Captain Curtis pulled his aircraft into the vertical. His intent was to induce the other pilots to follow him upstairs. They did so. In passing through 38,000 feet, he executed a vertical rolling scissors maneuver. However, Curtis had superior energy at the pull-up point. Thus, neither Lowe nor Foust could gain a tactical advantage in the fight. When Curtis executed a high-g rudder reversal, Foust attempted to stay with him. That’s when things deteriorated rapidly for Foust.
Foust flew his F-106A into an accelerated stall around 35,000 feet as he attempted to maintain position with Curtis. That is, his aircraft exceeded the stall angle-of-attack while simultaneously losing speed due to the motion-retarding effects of gravity and drag due to lift. The F-106A fell off into a series of post-stall gyrations followed by entry into a flat spin. The flat spin is a high angle-of-attack, deep stall condition from whence recovery was typically not possible in a Delta Dart.
Notwithstanding the futility of the task, Foust diligently applied anti-spin procedures in textbook fashion. However, the aircraft continued to fall in a flat spin. In desperation, Foust deployed his drag chute hoping that it would act as an anti-spin device. Unfortunately, the chute became totally useless for that purpose when it wrapped itself around the vertical tail of his falling steed. Running out of altitude and time, Foust had no other recourse but to abandon his airplane. He did so somewhere around 12,000 feet.
Foust was rocketed out of his Delta Dart and got a good chute. He landed in the Bear Paw Mountains, and fortunately was brought to safety by local citizens on snowmobiles. However, to the utter amazement of Foust, Curtis, and Lowe, the abandoned delta-winged aircraft snapped out of its flat spin and began to glide. Apparently, the equal and opposite reaction of the aircraft to the force produced by the rocket-powered ejection seat forced the nose of the airplane below the stall angle-of-attack. Thus, the wing began to produce lift again. Further, as part of his anti-spin procedures, Foust had configured the controls of the Delta Dart in take-off trim and brought the throttle to idle.
The net state of affairs now was that the F-106A became a pretty good glider. Gliding at about 175 knots, it ultimately made a wheels-up landing in a farmer’s snow-covered field near Big Sandy, Montana. The landing was aided by ground effect which enhanced the lift on the airplane as the vehicle neared the ground. Incredibly, the wings remained level throughout the landing slide-out. Further, late in the landing, the F-106A magically turned 20 degrees from its touchdown azimuth and avoided running into a pile of rockets directly in its path. In doing so, the airplane slipped through an opening in a fence around the farmer’s property and came to a stop.
When authorities approached the Delta Dart, they found that its canopy was gone, its ejection seat was gone, and so was its pilot. A look into the cockpit revealed that the radar scope was still sweeping for targets. And, although in idle, the still running turbojet produced a bit of thrust. Thus, periodically, the vehicle would lurch forward when the restraining snow around the it melted. Almost two hours later, the turbojet finally stopped running when the aircraft fuel supply ran out.
Remarkably, the pilotless Delta Dart sustained little damage despite the wheels-up landing. The aircraft was later trucked out of the area and sent to McClellan AFB in California for repairs. It ultimately was returned to service with the 71st FIS. Later, it entered the inventory of the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Grifffiss AFB, New York. Fittingly, a measure of closure was accorded (then) Major Gary Foust when he flew this same aircraft again in 1979. Today, USAF F-106A Delta Dart, S/N 58-0787 sits on display for posterity at the USAF National Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.